The complexity of “The Lagoon” is heightened by Joseph Conrad’s use of the frame narrative, the story-within-the-story. Arsat’s tale of love and fraternal betrayal is framed by the arrival and departure of the white man, who is at once an observer and a participant. As in a later story, “Youth,” in which the narrator provides a frame for Marlow’s tale of adventure, this sort of double narrative and double point of view pushes Arsat’s tale out of its personal focus and forces it to be seen in more cosmic terms. Arsat’s tale has affected the white man, who understands that he, too, has become part of the world of illusions. He shares complicity in the love, bravery, and cowardice. (The brother’s gun was a gift from the white man, for example.) Arsat’s tale, like the lagoon itself, stirs ripples in the mind and experience of the white man and in the reader as well. The white man is the bridge between the personal agony of Arsat and the universal tragic experience of humanity, in which one’s choices can lead to inescapable ruin.
Finally, the setting of the lagoon is the perfect embodiment of the illusory world of man’s actions. As the dominant image, the lagoon exists on three levels of interpretation. Precisely and intensely described, the lagoon has literal, palpable reality. It is a place immersed in the sounds and dark shadows of the tropical wilderness.
On a second level, the lagoon is a symbol of evil, a malign force, aggressive and alive, like a predator. It is not a personal malignity, something that lies within the responsibility of Arsat or the white man, but a menace that exists independently of human beings’ actions—in the manner of an ancient Greek chorus chanting of fate and destiny.
Finally, the lagoon is a metaphor for the human condition, a symbol of the dark uncertainty of motive. It is a psychological entity, suggestive of a confused state of mind.